Step into CGI’s ‘Internet Inside’

Ross Button is a big believer in the one-to-10-to-100 rule. According to the vice-president of technology leadership at Montreal-based consulting and outsourcing giant CGI Group, the rule means that for every person who actively participates in something, there are around 10 somewhat active people, and probably 100 very inactive people. This, he says, goes a long way towards explaining why so few users contribute to intranets, wikis or other collaborative tools designed to manage knowledge in an enterprise.

Button is the main architect behind Internet Inside, a CGI project that is being spread across the organization to push information out and keep users connected. Part Web-based library, part broadcasting and publishing engine, Internet Inside is already available to more than 1,000 employees, whom CGI calls “members,” with an eventual goal of about 5,000. It’s also relatively inexpensive — CGI is using a lot of open source software and basic tweaks to existing products rather than buying a single vendor’s system.

CGI is currently studying what elements of Internet Inside it could offer to customers. We asked Button to give ComputerWorld Canada a behind-the-scenes look at how its collaboration platform works.

Stop pulling, start pushing

Like a lot of companies, CGI had already set up a number of portals by the time Button joined the firm to establish a technology leadership program.

“What we didn’t have was the environment that would support connections of both people to knowledge and people to people,” he says. “E-mail is great if you know who you want to talk to.” Because most CGI employees check their Microsoft Outlook e-mail client each morning, however, Button’s team started pushing out the kind of information companies wish employees would check for on their corporate intranets.

“Think of an HTML-formatted e-mail that sort of represents what they would have seen if they had gone to a portal,” Button explains. Although CGI started out using basic really simple syndication (RSS) feeds, it was proving hard to change users’ behaviour to adopt them, he says. Instead, his team developed its own RSS report writer, which provides a weekly snapshot of a portal with links within the message. It has also integrated open source content management platform Drupal with its Exchange environment. The whole thing may sound like a regular employee newsletter, but Button says it works better than most.

“People don’t go to portals. People don’t sign up,” he says.

Make open source your own

CGI has also drawn upon the example of SourceForge, an online repository that developers often use to share downloads and other information relating to open source projects. Button says the company has basically replicated that concept and created CGI-Forge behind its own firewall, where users can exchange “artefacts” such as source code or entire chunks of reusable software. Updates from CGI-Forge are then captured on a portal, called Technology Focused Connections, which was built using Microsoft’s SharePoint Server.

The custom RSS writer then provides updates from Technology Focused Connections based on new artefacts or intellectual property that has been captured within CGI-Forge. A Google search appliance helps make information on CGI-Forge easy to find. “Either weekly or monthly, something has to be pushed out. It reminds them they’re part of the network. Then, when somebody then comes up with a need, they know where to go.”

Keep communities small

Button started Internet Inside as a way to facilitate knowledge management among CGI’s architects. He targeted around 500 employees. The next group was CGI’s subject matter experts, which number around 800. Industry-focused groups include 1,500 Internet Inside users so far, while its Java designers and developers represent thousands more. Within those broad categories, however, Internet Inside is careful about what it sends people.

“The questions are going to be different, the information we’re pushing out is different, the artefacts are different,” he says, adding that artefacts could include video or podcast links as well as text. The idea is to create a network of people interested in the same topics.

“When we shift into some of these practices we have found that between 100 and 150 people in a network is a good size. Some of the practice networks push to more than 1,000, though,” he says. “We know we have larger Java communities of developers, so we brought in an external evangelist/speaker to set up events. This draws the members out, brings them to the new social networking concept.”

Those social networking tools include wikis, which CGI has tied into its Active Directory to limit the parties involved on projects and thus provides a better structure to what can sometimes be an unwieldy tool. “We have our marketing team using a wiki to do the next annual report,” Button says as an example.

“Only certain people are allowed.” Button says Internet Inside has required a lot of trial and error, but the results have been rewarding. The company gets very few “unsubscribe” requests to its e-mail broadcasts, and the combination of Technology Focus Connections and CGI-Forge has allowed the company to speed ahead on mammoth projects like creating a service-oriented architecture.

“We’re not advocating what we’ve done for ourselves as the ideal solution for everybody,” Button says. “What it’s done is really explore the use of open source in the enterprise.”

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